Acclaimed Multi-Instrumentalist and Cancer Awareness Advocate James Casey Remembered By Fellow Musicians; Colorectal Cancer Alliance Announces Memorial Fund In His Name

Article Contributed by Margaret Willard | Published on Wednesday, August 30, 2023

"James was a magnificent soul. His spirit and personality glowed. His playing was elegant, stormy, soulful and lyrical ... He was a force of nature." – Trey Anastasio

"@jamescaseysax was one of the sweetest people and best musicians I've ever met.. he was so inspiring to be around and especially to make music with." – Billy Strings

"I loved James Casey from the very moment we met and playing music with him was a gift and a joy that is hard to put into words. He was incomparable. I am heartbroken by this loss." – Bill Kreutzmann

"Sometimes you meet someone that is just perfect. James' playing and singing were matched by his kindness." – Oteil Burbridge

"It seems there's never enough time with the very best people. I wish we had more time with James. Such a bright and brilliant light." – Dave Matthews

Musician James Casey, 40, died on Monday, August 28, 2023 at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York following a two-year battle with colon cancer.

Casey was an accomplished saxophonist, vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, producer, composer, musical director, and colorectal cancer awareness advocate. He was a solo artist, longtime member of the Trey Anastasio Band and beloved regular guest with Grateful Dead ensembles Billy and the Kids and Phil Lesh and Friends. Additionally, Casey was a prominent ally with the Colorectal Cancer Alliance, the leading national nonprofit organization for colon cancer, which has created a memorial fundraiser in his name to help save lives and end this disease.

A statement shared on Casey's social media reads, "It is with profound grief and a broken heart that we confirm the passing of James Casey. He died peacefully in the early morning of August 28, 2023, surrounded by his wife and family. James persevered through his colon cancer battle for two years, and it was the honor of his career to release solo music and perform during that time. James brought joy to everyone around him and his legacy will live on, both through his music and the advocacy work that’s become so integral to him. It was so important to James to help others avoid his fate – to learn the importance of early colon cancer screenings, know your family history, and be an advocate for your own health. When detected early, colon cancer is almost always curable. He shared his diagnosis publicly and illuminated his ongoing battle to raise awareness and help others. James was a remarkable human being, beloved for his wit, humility, kindness and generosity. He will be dearly missed."

Born in metro Washington, D.C. and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, Casey grew up in a musical family. He started playing drums at age 3 and by 9 he had already discovered his love of the saxophone. After graduating from Desert Vista High School, his passion led him to pursue a degree in music business at Berklee College of Music in Boston. There, Casey made lifelong bonds of friendship with fellow students and musicians such as Igmar Thomas, Louis Cato and Eric Krasno, performing at Wally's jazz club before he made the jump to become a full-time musician in New York City. A serendipitous 2012 sit-in with Krasno's band Soulive at Brooklyn Bowl introduced Casey to trumpeter Jennifer Hartswick, who became the catalyst for him to join the notable Trey Anastasio Band horn section of Casey, Hartswick and Natalie Cressman.

Following a performance at Red Rocks with Bill Kreutzmann, Casey was diagnosed with Stage III colorectal cancer in August 2021 at just 38 years old – well under the recommended age of 45 for first-time colonoscopy screenings. Despite undergoing surgery to remove a tumor and enduring rigorous chemotherapy, Casey stayed devoted to his music and continued to perform. Furthermore, he went public with his diagnosis in the hopes of bringing awareness to a disease that is increasingly affecting young people at alarming rates.

Unfortunately, Black Americans are 30% more likely to develop young-onset colorectal cancer, and one in four is diagnosed in the later stages. In addition, the Black community has the second-highest mortality and incidence rates in the U.S., and is 35% more likely to die from the disease. Casey appeared on the Today Show in March 2023 to share his story and discuss the importance of knowing your family history and getting tested early. To learn more about James Casey's cancer battle and advocacy efforts, watch "Music as Medicine: a James Casey story."

As Casey's cancer progressed to Stage IV despite chemotherapy treatments, he was inspired to finally record and release music under his own name. In November 2022, he announced his first solo work, a holiday EP titled A Little Something For Everyone, which garnered praise among NPR staff picks for the Best Songs of 2022. The album’s limited-edition vinyl pressings raised thousands of dollars for the cancer community via the Colorectal Cancer Alliance, the Nancy Langhorne Foundation and the Eastern Virginia Medical School's HOPES Clinic to fund colon cancer screenings for the uninsured.

Casey continued to record and release music prior to his passing. In March 2023, he dropped "New Bloom," his first true single as a solo artist in what he hoped would be part of his debut album, The Kaua'i Project. Inspired by a year of self discovery on a remote Hawaiian island during the pandemic, the soulful jazz tune's lyrics reflect Casey's personal mantra throughout his colon cancer battle – "No matter what problems come your way, you've got today. And no matter what happens today, you'll be okay." In the months that followed, and with nothing promised for the future, Casey dripped out two more singles, "E.J.B.M." and "Outside," as he was able.

Casey's numerous other contributions to the music community include collaborations with renowned artists. Recording credits include J. Cole, Talib Kweli, Jesse McCartney, Sabrina Claudio, Phish, Michael Kiwanuka, Melody Gardot, Chromeo, Danger Mouse/Karen O, Nigel Hall, Lettuce, The Shadowboxers and Brady Watt. He performed with Meghan Trainor, Dave Matthews Band, Jonas Brothers, Lauren Hill, Wu-Tang, The Roots, John Legend, Anderson .Paak, Maceo Parker, Carly Rae Jepsen, Leslie Odom Jr., Roy Hargrove, Shawn Mendes, 5th Harmony and countless others. Other solo projects include his band Animus Rexx and his virtual concert company, AuxChord.

Casey persevered through chemotherapy treatments and continued to perform in spring 2023 with Phil Lesh and Friends, Billy and the Kids, Trey Anastasio Band and Busta Rhymes as he was able – which, following a second abdominal surgery in May 2023, would become a single and poignant encore appearance. Casey took the stage for the last time with Phil Lesh & Friends at the Westville Music Bowl in New Haven, Connecticut on July 23, 2023.

On August 16, 2023, Casey announced that he was hospitalized and no longer able to perform due to his deteriorating health. A GoFundMe fundraiser was established to assist with his mounting medical and living expenses, which incredibly reached more than $150,000 in 24 hours.

Casey is survived by his wife Ayla Cobb Casey, mother Gina Casey, father Duane Casey, sister Rachel Cato and brother Stephen Casey. Memorial services will be announced at a later date. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Colorectal Cancer Alliance.

"It was important to James to spread awareness about knowing your family history, the significance of early screening, and being an advocate for your own health," says Michael Sapienza, CEO of the Colorectal Cancer Alliance. "Colorectal cancer is highly treatable when caught early. The Alliance is committed to continuing James' advocacy efforts, spreading these messages, and addressing equity and access in healthcare, with a focus on the Black community."

About Colorectal Cancer Alliance
The Colorectal Cancer Alliance empowers a nation of passionate and determined allies to prevent, treat, and overcome colorectal cancer in their lives and communities. Founded in 1999 and headquartered in Washington, D.C., the Alliance advocates for prevention, magnifies support, and accelerates research. It is the largest national nonprofit dedicated to colorectal cancer, and it exists to end this disease in our lifetime. For more information, visit